Asian Community Has Double Vision of Eyelid Surgery
By: Jean Lee Scheidnes
Photo below: Scenes for New York Fashion Week
Photos by FW
NEW YORK, Mar 6, 2000/ CNS / -- Asian Americans are identified by their eyes more than any other feature. So, for
this community, cosmetic surgery on the eyelids goes to the heart of identity politics and
Eyelid surgery is the country's third most popular cosmetic surgery, surpassed only by liposuction
and breast augmentation, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
The society's board-certified plastic surgeons performed 120,001 cosmetic eyelid surgeries in
1998, twice the number performed in 1992. Cosmetic eyelid surgery, blepharoplasty, is usually
meant to reduce signs of aging, but among younger Asian Americans--especially those of Korean,
Japanese, and Chinese descent--one method of blepharoplasty has gained significant popularity.
The majority of Asians have upper eyelids that appear to be taut from brow to lashes, rather
than segmented by a crease. Asian blepharoplasty patients often request the creation of an upper
eyelid crease, or "double eyelid," which uncovers a portion of the natural eye contours, making
the eyes slightly larger, rounder and more amenable to makeup, as well as exposing more of the
Since non-Asians are typically born with double eyelids, this procedure has been construed as
"Westernization," implying that Asians desire a more Caucasian appearance. But many in the
Asian American community argue that the point isn't to look Western, but to look more like other
Asians, many of whom have double eyelids naturally.
The notion of Westernization has sparked some criticism in the Asian American community.
Authors Maxine Hong Kingston and David Mura are uncomfortable with the popularity of the surgery,
and believe that altering eyes, features by which Asians are so easily identified, is an attempt
to conceal or deny Asian heritage and conform to mainstream American beauty ideals.
"It's evidence of internalized racism," says Mura. "It really indicates something about the way
in which Asians in America are indoctrinated by white standards of beauty. They feel less beautiful
than those who fit the Caucasian standard of beauty." The main reason for that, Mura says, is
the low representation of Asians in the media.
"People grow up watching the media, which is where people are beautiful and powerful.
You see very few Asian faces. The message is: the way you look is not beautiful, or doesn't
count, or doesn't even exist," he says. He believes the American media also account for much
of the surgery's popularity in Asia.
"The power of the American media and American culture stretches all over the globe, and can
cause people to devalue their own culture," says Mura.
Asian Americans who disagree with Mura's interpretation often point out that a large percentage
of Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese are born with creased eyelids, although they certainly tend
to be shaped differently than those of, say, Caucasians. In fact, in some regions, such as
in southern China, as many as 70 percent are born with them. In addition, double-eyelid surgery
is enormously popular in Asia, and has been considered attractive since well before the
infiltration of Western media. Therefore, many argue, Asians seeking double eyelids are simply
trying to look like the more attractive members of their own race.
"The desire for double eyelids has taken on a strange idea in the U.S. that Asian women want
to look like Caucasians and that they desire [moon-shaped] eyes," says Shi Kagy, editor of
AsiaMs, an online Asian beauty magazine (www.AsiaMs.net).
"In truth, Asian women want double eyelid folds that look like natural Asian type folds,
and dislike the Caucasian type," she says.
For ten years, Dr. Jeffrey Ahn, Director of Facial Plastic Surgery at Columbia University
Medical Center, has performed about 200 Asian blepharoplasties a year. He dispels the idea
that his patients have tried to obscure their racial identity.
"I don't get a single patient asking to be 'Westernized,'" he says. "A lot of doctors still call
it Westernization of the eyelid, which proves they have little understanding of the Asian
patients." He stresses the importance of going to a surgeon who is accustomed to operating
on Asian eyelids, because of the fundamental differences in facial anatomy.
"The surgeon should have aesthetic appreciation of the Asian eyelid," Ahn says. "A lot of the
Caucasian surgeons think making it more like the Caucasian eyelids makes it more beautiful,
and that's where unnaturalness results."
Ahn repeats, "I don't remember any Asian patient requesting to look less Asian."
Dr. John A. McCurdy, Jr., a plastic surgeon in Hawaii and author of the book "Cosmetic Surgery of
the Asian Face," has performed thousands of Asian blepharoplasties over the last 20 years.
He agrees that patients want to preserve their Asian characteristics--but says that wasn't
always the case.
"A lot's changed over the years," McCurdy says. "It used to be that Asian girls, especially
immigrant girls, were requesting the Westernization procedure. They wanted to look Caucasian.
But now what they're requesting is a procedure to enhance the double eyelid while maintaining
the other characteristics of the Asian eye."
In general, the hour-long process of Asian blepharoplasty involves excising a crescent- or
tilde-shaped piece of skin out of the eyelid, removing some of the underlying fat, and then
stitching the sides back together. There are different methods to accommodate variation in
the height and curvature of the desired crease.
The average cost of the surgery in the U.S. is $1,734. During recovery, which takes about
a week due to painful swelling and discoloration, the eyes must be treated with topical
antibiotics and cannot be washed.
Ji Jeong Han, who had the procedure at age 15 by Ahn, is aware that non-Asians might
misunderstand her intentions. "It's like if a white girl got cornrows, people would say she's
trying to look black. People always think they are being copied," she says. "Obviously,
white people have reason to think people want to look more like them. If you look at movies,
you know how Hollywood stars have blond hair and perfect figures and all that."
She insists that she had the surgery primarily to correct her eyelashes and believes most Asians
have the surgery for simple aesthetic reasons.
"All my Korean friends had it done just because they wanted bigger eyes," she says. Han,
now 18, was encouraged by her grandmother, her mother, and her aunt, all of whom she describes
as having naturally large eyes. "Before I got mine done, we used to look at Korean magazines or
TV, and all the Korean actresses had big eyes or had had it done. They think it's prettier,"
Whatever the reason for the surgery, one thing seems certain: the pressure to conform
the physical appearance to an ideal is not exclusive to either Western or Asian culture.
And, in any attempt to meet a standard, there's always a risk of losing individuality.
"After I got it done, my parents said it looked nice because it was rounder," Han says, "but on
the other hand something special was gone. Uniqueness." In fact, Han says, "I think people look
better the way they're born."